Zodiac: Director's Cut (Blu-ray)
Directed by David Fincher
Zodiac finds David Fincher getting his mojo back after a five-year absence. Unfortunately it comes during the last 30 minutes of his overlong, 162-minute serial-killer epic.
As the movie states in the opening frames, Zodiac is based on actual case files and a couple of books by Robert Graysmith, who also figures as one of the central characters.
Back in the late '60s, a serial killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area. He killed at least six people and, in order to satisfy his craving for media attention, he called himself "Zodiac" and sent cryptic messages to local newspapers. At one point he threatened to kill a dozen people during the course of a single weekend if the papers did not print his messages.
One of those papers was the San Francisco Chronicle, for which Graysmith was a political cartoonist.
Graysmith, an Eagle Scout so clean-cut that many of his colleagues thought he was "retarded," fashioned himself as something of a cipher guru and quickly picked up on the method behind Zodiac's madness.
Graysmith's obsession spanned more than 20 years and, as depicted in the movie, his all-consuming self-imposed mission to find the killer led to the loss of his job and his wife. Unfortunately, to this day the killer has not been positively identified.
The Most Dangerous Game
Zodiac represents a change of pace for director David Fincher, whose last feature was Panic Room in 2002. He's covered serial killers before in Seven, but this time around all the dark and sinister camera tricks are gone, as are the frenetic style and pacing of Fight Club. This is a very subdued Fincher. But while he deserves credit for taking on a new approach, this might not be the right material for such a Spartan style.
There are still plenty of artful flourishes, including a nifty scene in which time-lapse photography of the Transamerica pyramid under construction serves as an indicator of the passage of time.
The trouble, though, is that amidst all the murder, conspiracy and gumshoe activity, there's very little passion. Fincher smartly steers clear of slasher titillation during the murder scenes, but he fails to build much tension. While Spike Lee's Summer of Sam was not a very good movie, one thing it did better than Zodiac was to create an overwhelming sense of the angst that permeated every day life in New York City during the days (and nights) of the Son of Sam serial killer.
In Zodiac, it's not until the final hour that good old-fashioned Hitchcockian paranoia starts to creep up on the main characters and, in the final 30 minutes, a little chill seeps into the theater.
I am NOT Avery
Zodiac may not build anxiety, but it does offer are a couple great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) as Graysmith and Robert Downey, Jr. (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Paul Avery, a writer at the Chronicle who sends his own life into a toxic tailspin by calling out the serial killer in his editorials. Both Graysmith and Avery are seen deteriorating under the pressure of an obsession. Gyllenhaal in particular disappears inside his quiet, soft-spoken, but determined character.
Also engaging is Chloe Sevigny (American Psycho) as Melanie, a girl Graysmith meets on a blind date and eventually marries. They're two nerdy peas in a pod, but marriage and childbirth bring Melanie into her own as a woman while Robert continues to struggle with unlocking the killer's identity.
The movie also manages to have some fun with its time period, much like Almost Famous and other movies set in the late '60s and '70s. There's the announcement on the airplane that smoking is allowed in the last six rows only and, of course, everybody is living in that ancient world in which fax machines represent the latest in technology and not a single soul carries a cell phone.
The Blu-ray edition replicates all the features of the HD-DVD release.
The first disc contains the director's cut (clocking in at 162 minutes; the theatrical cut was five minutes shorter). Also on board are two very good commentaries.
The first is from director David Fincher. Soft-spoken and quite modest, he provides a very informative commentary that relates a bit of his own experience of living in San Francisco at the time with all manner of filmmaking insights, including the rationale behind some of the intentional departures from the investigative reports and interviews.
The second track takes a different tone and features input from stars Robert Downey, Jr., and Jake Gyllenhaal as well as screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer, and crime novelist James Ellroy (author of L.A. Confidential).
Downey, Jr., at times sounds like he's prepping for his role as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder as he makes some "serious" thespian statements about the talents and performance of Gyllanhaal. Together the two provide a lively banter that is inter-cut with a separate conversation between Vanderbilt, Fischer and Ellroy. Those three offer some good insight, particularly in pointing out the subtle differences between the theatrical and director's cuts. For his part, Ellroy is fairly boisterous and makes some comments about his manhood, while in jest, that could certainly have been left on the cutting room floor.
An interesting juxtaposition is found in how the actors comment on the "basement scene" with Charles Fleischer as one scene that really creeped out people and worked so well. The other three take the stance that the scene should've been cut, not finding fault with Fleischer's performance, but rather that the entire scene was ill-conceived and unnecessary.
The second disc splits out features based on historical information related to the real Zodiac case and those based on the filmmaking experience.
On the reality front, there's This Is the Zodiac Speaking, a 102-minute look into the investigation, and His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen, an exhaustive 43-minute examination of the prime suspect that gets into the nitty-gritty, including handwriting samples and job applications.
The two reality documentaries are terrific complements to the feature film. By focusing on the real-life people, it really hits home how reality is so much stranger than fiction. In particular, the first male victim who survived the Zodiac's attempted murder in reality was such a skinny guy he wore multiple layers of clothes in an attempt to conceal his scrawniness. It's striking watching the real-life victim talk about his encounter with the Zodiac killer and to further reveal the love quadrangle between himself, his brother, a girl and her husband. The illicit relationships quite possibly spurred on the attack.
Also fascinating are the various takes on the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen. And, as seen in His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen, it's amazing to learn of another suspect, one who is interviewed for this segment. Creeeepy!
This is the kind of stuff that truly enriches the film-viewing experience and both documentaries are highly recommended.
Purely as a style note, the two fact-based documentaries are a little marred by a style that cuts to black for various amounts of time throughout. It's more distracting than mood-setting.
On the filmmaking side, Zodiac Deciphered is an excellent 54-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the movie that uncovers it all without simply rehashing all the content found in the commentaries.
The Visual Effects of Zodiac is a 15-minute segment that offers up surprises of its own. It's incredible to discover just how much of the film was created digitally, somewhat like 300, only with far, far more realistic results.
There's also Previsualization, which presents seven minutes of pre-visualization footage alongside the finished film. Previsualization is essentially the new, high-tech version of pen-and-ink storyboards. While interesting to an extent, this portion is best left for the completists.
Finally, there's the very well-done theatrical trailer.
There are none.
Picture and Sound
The picture is well done and features solid blacks that help keep the mood on the dark side. It's nicely detailed, which helps the movie's clever use of CGI convey a great sense of reality.
The English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD is generally excellent as well, although the subject matter and presentation don't lend themselves to being reference material for Blu-ray. It's an evenly-paced drama that offers up aural "pop" in the moments when the film's use of rock music is allowed to take center stage.
Also on board are subtitles in English, English SDH, French and Spanish.
How to Use This Disc
Before tackling the director's cut, at the very least watch His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen. Ideally, also check out This Is the Zodiac Speaking.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.